The Politics of Moralizing

Thoughts from revisiting The Politics of Moralizing. (Direct quotes are attributed to the authors of the essays).

Examples of the politics of moralizing are common today. We see their use in the many political debate shows on the news channels. This is all ‘good theater’ precisely because, like debates between opposing religions, the format is rarely aimed at achieving consensus.

The shows play on the emotional intensity of human moral commitments, the urge to self-certainty as a form of vanity: “the moralist is driven by self-righteousness and he carefully watches the sins others commit” (Jane Bennett). Moralizing is usually accompanied by an authoritarian certainty, a moralistic overconfidence. It comes from a tendency to take ourselves too seriously, without heed to any opposing views that would complicate our claims. Our moralizing beliefs are durable and persist without critical examination.

Moralizers take pride in giving a moral lesson. But any claim of moral authority requires considerable confidence in one’s judgement. Authoritarian statements of moral laws imply some sort of moral expertise. This is the thought that the political moralizer has some sort of special access to what is right, leading to an emphasis on why their opponents are wrong. But “the role of an intellectual is not to tell others what they must do. By what right would he do so?” (Foucault).

In addition there is a practice of harshly judging and reproaching your opponents. This can take the form of hate ads where the criticism is often ad hominem: the fallacy of attacking the speaker instead of her claims.  Ironically enough for all types of political dialogues, “Moralism is animated by a tacitly anti-democratic sentiment: it does not want to talk but rather seeks to abort conversation with its prohibitions and reproaches” (Wendy Brown).

Consider two examples of the politics of moralizing; environmentalism (moral authority) and feminism (reproaching the opponent). “Environmentalists are some of the most effective political moralists in American politics. Their self certainty is based on the belief that nature tells them to behave in particular ways. [Sorting the trash into recyclables], an activity largely unknown until recent years, now is undertaken as a moral responsibility” (Bill Chaloupka).

Ann Curthoys and Wendy Brown comment on the tendency toward harsh judgementalism often associated with feminism, which, like the Christian slave revolts, has taken on a victim mentality and become attached to “the foundationalism of morality as a compensation for powerlessness” (Curthoys). “Feminism seeks to shame and discredit power while at the same time securing the ground of the true and the good” (Brown).

Political theater could go another way, although I doubt the ratings would sustain a long run. The debaters could shift away from an evangelical self certainty and a censorious attitude toward their opponent’s views. Instead they could consider “what must be articulated, cultivated and affirmed” in their own vision. In the example of identity politics, there could be a focus on how to “reinvigorate our sense of identity and the manner in which we relate, compose, craft, and sculpt that identity” (Curthoys).

When you find yourself drawn into political conversations at your next cocktail party you might consider Jane Bennett’s advice: “Season your claims with self-irony and humility, cultivate a tolerance for moral ambiguity, practice normative reticence, build a resistance to the pleasure of purity, mind your own business, forget to wreak vengeance.”

14 thoughts on “The Politics of Moralizing

  1. Ray

    Tone and style: pitch-perfect, compulsively readable, beautiful ending.

    Content: hard to argue.

    One only wants to see a slightly more personal touch here. One, for instance, would prefer a photo of the fellow behind such lapidary eloquence. We can see Durkheim or the defenestrated Deleuze anywhere besides your About page.

    Reply
    1. father time Post author

      Ray,

      Father Time knows you are addicted to the apodictic. He’ll strive for more certainty. As to a photo, The good Father is loath to put himself forward at all, much less in the company of the auto-defenestrater, Gilles Deleuze.

      Reply
    2. father time Post author

      Ray,
      I forgot to thank you for the thoughtful reply. It is much appreciated.
      Fr. Time

      Reply
  2. AB

    Well you’re well out of my league but I love what I was able to follow and the ending was compelling. The quote is worth having next to the one in the kitchen or the pillow with the dog.
    Keep on writing and I’ll try to keep pace alongside you. Good luck!

    Reply
  3. Jay

    Fr. Time, if I may I would like to forward this to jake,he would be a great addition to you and ray,with opinions from this side of the pond.
    He was here last week although we did not exactly chat like you, we certainly had our political discussions.
    He will be able to add to your converstaion I believe!
    Love seeing Rays comments please give him our best.
    jay

    Reply
  4. Matt Aronson

    I love that you’re offering your thoughts in an online forum, Father Time, and especially appreciated the ending quotation from Bennett’s work. Also want to echo Ray’s comments re: tone and style.

    Being relatively unlettered in formal philosophy, but also being a verbose sociologist, I thought I’d offer some thoughts (admittedly not very carefully construed, but the gist is there, I think):

    In my view, the term “political conversation” implies discussion about the distribution of power (and its varieties) and of material/ideological influence in society. Politics, and the moral commitments people claim so as to do well in political conversations, is about who gets the goodies and how they get it. Too often, people succeed in getting the goodies by conflating what they deem as “the truth” about social reality with their belief-claims about social reality. This is a dangerous habit, one that ought to be censored. (Yes I said it. Fire at will…) And as you suggested, much is at stake here—people claim moral authority by urging others to believe that their judgments about reality are factually correct and not just morally preferable (though that is crucial too, of course). So for example, when Bill O’Reilly flatly asserts “there’s no such thing as white privilege,” implying that his “talking point” is somehow rooted in factual evidence, he is making a judgment and rooting it in moral authority and what passes for factual knowledge about the social reality of whiteness. Maybe O’Reilly doesn’t agree with the overwhelming majority of social scientists, many of whom dedicate their careers to carefully parsing what whiteness means, how to thoughtfully measure it, etc. Or maybe O’Reilly is unaware of the scholarly literature on the topic, almost all of which refutes his stance toward the matter.

    In any case, this little example highlights what I see as the problem of using one’s intuition or beliefs in asserting knowledge about social things, and this is connected to the difficult conversational terrain mentioned in your post. With regard to the aforementioned example, in my discussions with students I have repeatedly characterized O’Reilly’s view toward white privilege as factually incorrect because, well, he does appear to be factually incorrect about the existence or dynamics of racial privilege. So, does this mean I’ve failed to “shift away from an evangelical self certainty and a censorious attitude toward [my] opponent’s views” as you suggested in the post? Perhaps, though it is still possible for me to “season my claims with self-irony and humility” by hedging a little and qualifying my statements by saying social science evidence isn’t necessarily the ‘truth,’ but often it’s the best we’ve got to work with when making knowledge claims about social reality. Whether the social science disciplines offer a better, more valid, more defensible set of knowledge claims (as compared to knowledge claims based in people’s anecdotal experience, opinion, etc.) should always be an open, testable question. Perhaps this is one of the characteristics that distinguish science from other sources of knowledge and wisdom.

    But back to my point: Admittedly, Bill O’Reilly is far too easy a target, but he is kindred to so many in his abiding belief that it is merely by living in society that one can claim knowledge about it. Sort of like when I ask people about the “causes of homelessness,” invariably they eagerly hold forth and assert their belief-claims as knowledge claims—often citing anecdotal examples from their own experience—even when presented with evidence about homelessness that refutes their beliefs. But when they are posed with questions like “what causes water molecules to cling to other water molecules?” people say that they’d need to consult the experts (chemists, in this case) for answers…I rarely hear my fellow humans argue among themselves about the dynamics of water because, as the ideology goes, that’s an issue best left to the experts. As distinct from how so many seem to view social reality, apparently one cannot claim knowledge about physical reality merely by living in it (or, in the case of water, being made of it).

    When in conversation I argue against what I perceive to be someone’s belief-claims with what I perceive to be my knowledge claims (rooted as they may be in a mix of interpretative and quantitative social science), then I don’t think I should hedge much in “affirming and cultivating my own vision” for a reasoned debate—and reasoned debate seldom affords room for people who think that their beliefs count as facts. Are climatologists—as intensely as some of them hold their moral commitments—supposed to idly watch as pundits make unfounded claims about long-run shifts in our climate? In situations when one has the so-called “weight of evidence” on one’s side, and scientific consensus to boot, then why should one hold back (on the merits) in conversation when others, pundits, especially, clearly aren’t willing to?

    Being a “believer” in the increasingly careful scientific scholarship in various domains, I will continue to argue forcefully, and with a measured intellectual modesty (seeking to foment consensus, avoiding ad hominen jabs), when others peddle such belief-claims as “welfare fraud is a big problem,” or that “economic inequality isn’t a big problem,” or that “decriminalizing drugs is good for a society, just look at Portugal!” and so forth. At the risk of sounding like I’ve drank the post-positivist epistemological Kool-Aid, I must stick to what I think I know about social reality (as importantly, I must be open to changing my perspective when new/alternative evidence emerges), and in doing so sometimes I verbally refute others when I think their reasoning or argumentation is inadequate, ill-informed, or perilous. What’s the alternative?

    Reply
    1. father time Post author

      Thanks for your well considered reply, it is much appreciated.
      From your note: “When in conversation I argue against what I perceive to be someone’s belief-claims with what I perceive to be my knowledge-claims (rooted as they may be in a mix of interpretative and quantitative social science), then I don’t think I should hedge much in “affirming and cultivating my own vision” for a reasoned debate.”
      I see your point. But how exactly do belief-claims differ from knowledge-claims, and don’t we tilt the playing field simply by introducing and assigning these terms? Knowledge-claims are generally defined as justified true beliefs. Often the argument turns on the soundness of the justification process by either side. Either side can characterize their opponents as limited to belief-claims, claims that are not reliably justified and thus possibly untrue. As sociologists we rely on statistical or observational studies to justify our knowledge-claims. But such studies can often support disconfirming evidence for the knowledge-claims of similar yet opposing studies.
      On the other hand, many people are just as comfortable calling on intuition instead of scientific studies to justify their knowledge-claims. Philosophers recognize that some foundational knowledge-claims ultimately come to a bedrock of intuitional belief: There is nothing underneath them but intuition to justify their belief. As Wittgenstein said I reach a point where “my spade is turned.” Consider an environmentalist who claims we have an ethical obligation to the earth because it is morally regardable as Gaia. This would seem on its surface to be justified from intuition rather than any scientific or sociological study.
      So would we actually try to understand their justificatory process? And to what extent would we accept justification by intuition? Or are we willing to turn the debate to a discussion of the soundness of each other’s statistical studies? I don’t propose to have the ‘right’ answers, but perhaps we both have an idea of how often this might actually happen. It is too easy for either side to dismiss any ‘evidence’ that disconfirms our position.

      Reply
      1. Matt Aronson

        From Fr. Time:
        “…how exactly do belief-claims differ from knowledge-claims, and don’t we tilt the playing field simply by introducing and assigning these terms? Knowledge-claims are generally defined as justified true beliefs.

        From me:
        I agree with your implicit point that belief-claims and knowledge-claims don’t really differ because both are based in “belief.” By analogy, and to steal from Basso: An Apache elder may believe that a tree or stream carries moral significance and can thus teach people to know how to act morally, practically, etc. Belief about the stream is no different than claiming a kind of knowledge about the world and how to behave in it. On another hand, a social scientist may believe that crowds have certain dynamics that one can discern through scientific investigation. Belief about social science is no different than claiming a kind of knowledge about the world and how to speak about it.

        As far as I can tell—and something for which I’m glad—it is rare that sociologists (or political scientists, or anthropologists…) say their knowledge about social things is “true.” Carefully hedging, qualifying, specifying the parameters of an argument, and entertaining disconfirming evidence or counterarguments—these are the hallmarks of good social science. It’s why, when perusing the major journals, one encounters so few (if any?) “true causal claims” about social reality. (Usually, one encounters language like “our analyses/interpretations suggest that…”) Scholarly inquiry—knowledge-claims that people often base in systematic investigation—is all about dealing with and acknowledging uncertainty.

        So I guess the distinction I was going for in my initial post is this: Compared to what someone says they “know” (because they’ve lived it, or because it happened to their friends, or because Ayn Rand wrote it, or because an Apache elder says it’s true, etc.), I think observational evidence based on systematic study—be it interpretive, quant, historical-comparative, etc.—is preferable, more interesting, more vulnerable to disconfirmation, and therefore more valid-in-the-moment when it comes to assessing the existence or direction of big social issues/problems. (It’s one of the reasons why I casually cited Keith Basso’s work—I “believe” and therefore I claim to “know” that his ethnographic observations/interpretations about Western Apaches are more valid than other kinds of observations.)

        The pithy response to your question about tilting the playing field would be yes, we do (and I think we probably should) tilt the playing field by introducing terms like belief, knowledge, etc. I will sooner take seriously a peer-reviewed study that makes “knowledge-claims” (rooted in belief-claims about the value of scientific inquiry) about the apparent causes of poverty than I would believe what an individual social worker might claim (rooted in belief-claims she draws from her “experience with the poor,” etc.) about poverty.

        From Fr. Time:
        Often the argument turns on the soundness of the justification process by either side. Either side can characterize their opponents as limited to belief-claims, claims that are not reliably justified and thus possibly untrue. As sociologists we rely on statistical or observational studies to justify our knowledge-claims. But such studies can often support disconfirming evidence for the knowledge-claims of similar yet opposing studies.

        From me:
        Per my comments above, I fully agree with you on this.

        From Fr. Time:
        On the other hand, many people are just as comfortable calling on intuition instead of scientific studies to justify their knowledge-claims…some foundational knowledge-claims ultimately come to a bedrock of intuitional belief: There is nothing underneath them but intuition to justify their belief…Consider an environmentalist who claims we have an ethical obligation to the earth because it is morally regardable as Gaia. This would seem on its surface to be justified from intuition rather than any scientific or sociological study. So would we actually try to understand their justificatory process? And to what extent would we accept justification by intuition? Or are we willing to turn the debate to a discussion of the soundness of each other’s statistical studies? I don’t propose to have the ‘right’ answers, but perhaps we both have an idea of how often this might actually happen. It is too easy for either side to dismiss any ‘evidence’ that disconfirms our position.

        From me:
        So true. Dismissing evidence simply because it misaligns with one’s position is as naïve as claiming that one’s position is truer than another’s simply because one feels it to be true, etc. In my view, dismissing evidence as “not very convincing” should be done, but done with care and with an eye to the complex ways by which we can discern validity of a person’s mode of inquiry, be it philosophical, scientific, traditional, intuitively reasoned, etc.

        But when one assesses the “weight of evidence” on a major issue, say whether socioeconomic inequality appears to be better or worse for society—re: specified social indicators like life expectancy or mobility—then I say it’s right (I believe it’s right, therefore I claim to “know” it’s right) to dismiss a knowledge-claim if the majority of experts—sociologists, political scientists, and economists—deem it to be illogical, unfounded, or disingenuous regarding the “data” at hand. I realize that siding with “the experts” is a fraught position but, well, there I stand. For now, at least, until something more convincing comes along.

        Really appreciate your blog, Herr Doktor Fr. Time.

        Reply
        1. father time Post author

          M: An Apache elder may believe that a tree or stream carries moral significance and can thus teach people to know how to act morally, practically, etc.
          FT: Perhaps we could say the stream carries educational significance with a moral content. Not sure about using the term ‘moral significance’ about the stream itself. It could imply moral regardability: that the stream has human moral rights and that’s a different can of worms.

          M: it is rare that sociologists (or political scientists, or anthropologists) say their knowledge about social things is “true.”
          FT: Agreed, and it is to their credit.

          M: I think observational evidence based on systematic study is preferable when it comes to assessing the existence or direction of big social issues/problems.
          FT: Agreed

          M: I say it’s right to dismiss a knowledge-claim if the majority of experts deem it to be illogical, unfounded, or disingenuous regarding the “data” at hand.
          FT: Agreed. Philosophers may tell us that arguing from authority is fallacious in that any authority is fallible but, what the hell, they’re authorities in this matter. In a practical sense we are all at the mercy of experts today. When each side has its own ‘experts’ it is more difficult to arbitrate strength of justification.

          At the end of the day, I simply try to recognize when I have encountered dogmatic opposition. Then my spade is turned and I prefer to retire from the field and use my limited energy elsewhere.

          Thanks for your non-dogmatic replies,
          FT

          Reply
    2. Ray

      “Unlettered in formal philosophy, but also being a verbose sociologist…”

      My dear Mr. Aronson, that’s practically a contradiction in terms. Don’t you know that sociology is formal philosophy?

      Or let me put that a slightly different way: Philosophy is what sociology wants to be when it gets great big.

      As for the Kool-Aid, drink it up, you sweet peach.

      Reply
      1. Matt Aronson

        From Ray:
        Don’t you know that sociology is formal philosophy? Or let me put that another way: Philosophy is what sociology wants to be when it gets great big.

        From me:
        Oh, dear…
        (Beyond the two fields’ shared commitment to inductive reasoning, I can’t tell what you were trying to get at here.)

        In case it wasn’t obvious when we lived in FtC, I’d prefer drinking anything you serve, even if it’s Kool-Aid, but let’s make sure it’s not epistemological Kool-Aid. Too bad we moved to Gunnison!

        Reply

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